The Beatles and Edward Lear

Paperback writer

The first sign of the metamorphosis that was under way in the Beatles’ music came on the group’s first single of 1966, “Paperback Writer” b/w “Rain,” a record that recalled “Can’t Buy Me Love” b/w “You Can’t Do That” in its pairing of songs that matched sharp distinctions of style with close similarities of form. Paul McCartney’s “Paperback Writer” was a satire of pop ambition in the style of “Drive My Car,” set like its predecessor in a musical context of relentless simplicity. Instead of a melody that clamors on one note, the song has a harmony that clamors on one chord, confining itself to long stretches on the tonic relieved by brief forays to the subdominant. This going-nowhere chord progression suggests a harmonic metaphor for unfulfillment that jibes with the lyrics of the song.

Like its budding author-narrator, “Paperback Writer” tries to make the most of its meager resources by heaping an elaborate arrangement on its simple harmonic frame. In the introduction, the song title is triplicated in an a cappella chorale that has Paul, John, and George staggering their entrances like children singing rounds. Their voices invert in a cascade of “writer, writer, writer” as the singers complete their lines, whereupon Ringo comes bolting out of the gate with a beat of almost comic intensity behind a driving, harshly distorted figure on guitar. “Son of Day Tripper” was how Lennon described the song, but the lyric is much wittier than that of the earlier single. There’s a wealth of satiric nuance in the formality of the author’s query on behalf of his “dirty story” with its thinly fictionalized plot and its obsessive dimensions (“a thousand pages give or take a few”). The mangled reference to “a novel by a man named Lear” sounds like a dig at Lennon, whose own paperback writings had drawn comparisons with Edward Lear. But the butt of the joke rests firmly with McCartney himself. He, after all, was the one who wrote the query letters back in the days of the Quarry Men and the Silver Beatles, soliciting work for the band in his most affected grammar-school prose. And the tight fit between the singer and his character helps to drain the condescension from the song. When Paul exclaims the words “Paperback Writer” at the end of every verse, he brings a starry-eyed reverence to this dubious occupational title that almost stands up to the punning counterpoint of “Pay-per-back-er” (sung to the tune of “Frère Jacques”) that John and George provide.

If the words and music of “Paperback Writer” could be said to capture some of the spirit of London in 1966, enlivened by people from all stations of society on the move and on the make, then John Lennon’s “Rain” on the flip side of the single captured the dreamy private languor that formed the flip side of the city’s “swinging” scene. The two tracks are similar in the simplicity of their chord progressions and the fullness of their sound, but the rhythm of “Rain” feels enervated, and the accompaniment eschews the clipped, Mod-like precision of “Paperback Writer” for a more impressionistic wash. Where the one track is a line drawing, the other is a blurry pastel.

In keeping with the allusion to Edward Lear on McCartney’s side of the single, the they who run and hide from the weather in Lennon’s song, the they who “might as well be dead,” resemble the they of Lear’s limericks: “the realists, the practical men, the sober citizens in bowler hats who are always anxious to stop you doing anything worth doing,” as George Orwell once described Them. “Rain” is a postcard from Weybridge, a subversive salutation from the heart of the stockbroker belt. The lyric is more overtly imagistic than in any previous Beatles song, with “rain” and “shine” juxtaposed as mere “states of mind” in a meteorological yin and yang. The accompaniment is more imagistic as well, dominated by droning guitars, long rolls from the drums that rattle through the verses, and lush choral singing in the bridge that fills the air with melismatic sheets of sound: “Ra-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-ain—I don’t mind! Shi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-ine—the weather’s fine!” Another novel element is the treatment of Lennon’s voice, lispy with treble and thickly double-tracked, which seems to be strained through the soup of drums and guitars. “Can you hear me?” John asks in the song’s last intelligible line, introducing a coda in which the drumrolls and the choral voices mingle with an audio hallucination created by rerecording the vocal track backwards. The result is a stream of apparent gibberish that retains the form of speech but reverses the shape of its acoustic “envelope” in a way that suggests another dimension in which time and meaning have turned around.

[Gould, Jonathan. Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America. New York: Harmony Books, 2007. 325-327.]

beatles-revolver

From its height of romantic rapture, Revolver next descends to the allegorical depths of the sea. Written by Paul, with help from John, expressly for Ringo to sing, “Yellow Submarine” is by all rights a children’s song, with simple words, simple chords, and a numbingly simple refrain. It is performed in a sing-along manner removed from the context of contemporary pop, sounding more like a throwback to an earlier era of participatory music-making that atrophied—among adults, at any rate—in the era of records and radio. Yet its simplicity and childishness are deceptive, for nothing the Beatles had recorded to date was more dependent on technological sleight-of-hand. “Yellow Submarine” is a simple song transformed by the wonders of multitrack technology into a sophisticated sonic pastiche. In 1966 it stood as a cockeyed monument to the whole self-sufficient and self-absorbed existence the Beatles were creating for themselves at Abbey Road. Sung by anyone else above the age of thirteen, it would have smacked of deliberate camp. But Ringo lacked the vocal resources to be anything but guileless, and he brought to the song the same deadpan quality he brought to the Beatles’ films. In his hands the Yellow Submarine became a satirically updated version of the improbable craft in which Edward Lear put his characters to sea—the Owl and the Pussycat’s pea-green boat, the Jumblies’ unsinkable sieve.

Like “Norwegian Wood,” the song begins by subverting the narrative cliché. “In the town where I was born, lived a man who sailed to sea,” Ringo drones over the strum of an acoustic guitar, “And he told us of his life, in the land of submarines.” Like all good nonsense, the lyrics to the world’s first undersea shanty are based on a single incongruity, taken to its logical extreme: men have been sailing to sea in songs like this for centuries, but not in submarines. The second verse is accompanied by the frothing of the ocean, closing in overhead, while the third competes with a hubbub of conversation, clinking glassware, and jovial bonhomie: “And our friends are all aboard, many more of them live next door / And the band begins to play….” Whereupon a full brass band does just that, shattering the calm of this polite gathering with two bars of booming oompah, which is just enough to conjure the image of tubas in a submarine. Between verses, Ringo stands at the head of a sailors’ chorus, chanting the refrain. There’s also a solo, of sorts, composed entirely of sound effects drawn from the collective unconscious of a generation of schoolboys raised on films about the War Beneath the Seas. Valves squeak, pipes hiss, bells sound, hatches slam, and crisply garbled voices relay terse commands, until the song’s last verse is discharged from this Goonish concerto with the whoosh of a torpedo exiting its tube. Here Ringo is joined by John, who echoes each line in the strained, sardonic voice of an old vaudevillian with the crowd in the palm of his hand. John signs off with a maniacal laugh and the ship’s company falls in for the final refrain, which has taken on an aura of daffy sincerity like some old patriotic number, sung to the tramp-tramp-tramp of marching feet.

[Ibid. 355-356.]

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